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21 Oct 2020, 12:22
Julian Wettengel

Government aims to make Germany climate resilient as average temperature rises

Photo shows tree in North Rhine Westphalia invested with bark beetle. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.
Heat waves and drought have made Germany's forest more vulnerable to threats such as the bark beetle. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.

The average air temperature in Germany has risen by about 1.6°C from pre-industrial times and the effects of global warming are becoming increasingly felt in the central European country. The government’s progress report on its climate change adaptation strategy highlights worsening effects, such as more frequent periods of extreme heat in summer, low groundwater levels and rising water levels in the North and Baltic Seas. The government plans to develop a “vision for a climate-resilient Germany 2060,” which will take into account the timeline of the planned new EU climate change adaptation strategy. Germany also wants to systematically record damages caused by a changing climate and their costs, and to introduce a support programme for climate adaptation in social facilities.

As temperatures rise and the effects of climate change become increasingly felt in Germany, the government wants to step up action to help the country adapt and eventually make it climate-resilient. Together with a progress report on its climate change adaptation strategy, the government has published a new action plan of measures to help Germany grapple with effects, such as heat waves, water shortages and droughts.

“Climate change has arrived in Germany,” said environment minister Svenja Schulze. This is particularly felt by those municipalities that have to cope with heat and water shortages in summer. The minister added that “good planning and precaution” are necessary to deal with the effects of rising temperatures.

Federal Environment Agency (UBA) head Dirk Messner has emphasised that prevention is cheaper than dealing with the effects of climate change. “We’re not particularly good when it comes to preventive action,” he said at a press conference. “We tend to only react once the crisis hits us.” Messner named renaturation of wetlands and river courses, more space for nature in cities, and soil-conserving methods in agriculture as examples of adaptation. However, it is not only about adapting to rising temperatures, but creating a more sustainable society in general. “We will only be able to live with the consequences of overheating in the coming decade if we succeed in aligning climate action even more consistently with sustainability goals,” he said.

The 2018 drought and heat wave across central Europe and the coronavirus pandemic have led many in Germany and elsewhere to recognise climate action and sustainable life on the planet as political priorities. While countries in other regions of the world are often dealing with more severe and life-threatening consequences of rising temperatures, the effects nonetheless are becoming increasingly felt also in central Europe.

Germany’s adaptation strategy, adopted in 2008, is continuously being updated to make it more effective and able to react to a changing reality. Following a first progress report from 2015, the government now takes stock again after five years and sets political priorities for the coming years. In addition, the government will publish its next vulnerability analysis report in 2021 to identify key areas for adaptation measures.

Messner warned that research from the past 2-3 years has shown that the problem of tipping points – such as for the melting of the Greenland ice layer or the possible desertification of the Amazon – is much bigger than previously thought. “Just five years ago I would have said that at more than 3.5 or 4°C warming we would enter this dangerous terrain. Now, researchers are showing us that already at 2°C warming it could become critical in regards to some of these tipping points.”

Average temperature in Germany rose by 1.6°C from pre-industrial times

The government report describes the observed impacts of climate change and the adaptation taking place in Germany. It says the average air temperature in Germany has risen by about 1.6°C from 1881 to 2019, extreme heat waves during summer affect people more often, and water levels in the North and Baltic Seas are rising significantly. Along the North Sea coast, the water level is set to rise faster than the famous Wadden Sea can rise through additional sediment deposits. “The Wadden Sea is thus likely to be on the verge of an irreversible change from a tidal flat-dominated to a lagoon-dominated system with enormous impacts on the ecosystem.”

The report also says agriculture has to expect reduced yield security and low ground water level is increasingly an issue. Noticeably low groundwater levels and low spring discharges occurred above all between 2013 and 2017, says the report. “Due to the pronounced dry period, the data for 2018 show a similar, even more extreme situation.”

However, in other fields the effects of climate change are less clear. The development of flood days shows “no significant trend” for either the summer or winter half-year, says the report. “The occurrence of floods is always linked to special weather constellations, which, however, have not yet occurred systematically and regularly.”

An action plan for the coming years and a “vision” to make Germany climate-resilient by 2060

The report also identifies key priorities for the coming years, which include developing a “vision for a climate-resilient Germany 2060”. This is to take into account the timeline of the planned new EU climate change adaptation strategy, which the European Commission aims to publish in the first quarter of 2021.

Another priority will be to improve the way that the effectiveness of adaptation measures is gauged. The government also wants to take stock of adaptation expenditures and the expected benefits, review the damage potentials and assess the economic impact of climate change and adaptation measures in Germany.

Also attached is a new adaptation action plan, which lays out specific instruments in different fields, such as water, infrastructure, land use and health. Existing schemes like the national flood protection programme will be continued as new measures are added to the mix. The government plans to set up a register to systematically record damages caused by a changing climate and their costs, and to introduce a support programme for climate adaptation in social facilities. Nursing homes, day care centres or hospitals can apply for funds to help them with measures, such as setting up pavilions for shade, put plants on facades and roofs, install water dispensers or conduct trainings for employees on adaptation to climate change. This 150-million-euro support programme is part of the coronavirus recovery plan decided in June 2020.

Social services association Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AWO) has welcomed the support programme. “The past hot summers have shown that the current framework conditions in the health sector and in social work do not meet the challenges of advancing climate change,” said member of the board Brigitte Döcker. She said that support, training and adequate consultation are necessary to prepare the sector to better protect its customers.

The government’s action plan also includes international measures, such as the Natural Disaster Fund to increase the resilience of poorer countries through various forms of insurance, providing climate risk insurance schemes to Latin American cities and financing “climate-intelligent” technologies in agriculture in India.

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